[T]he meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
Richard becomes friends with the other black boys in his Arkansas neighborhood, finding that they share the same hostility to white people and the same racial pride. Wright remarks that he and the other boys did not entirely understand their motivations at the time. He reproduces one of their typical conversations along with a running commentary on the words the boys speak, which show that race is always the fundamental concern of the boys’ interactions. The local black boys and white boys seem to assume their conventional racial roles “by instinct,” meeting at the boundary of their respective territories for bloody battles fought with rocks, broken glass, pieces of iron, and anything else that can be thrown. In one fight, a broken bottle gives Richard a deep wound behind the ear that requires stitches. His mother takes him to the doctor for stitches but beats him when they get home, making him promise not to fight again. Richard feels he cannot honor his promise because these neighborhood fights are a matter of personal honor.
Ella becomes too ill to work, forcing her to move the family to a series of different apartments in an attempt to meet the rent payments. Richard works a variety of menial jobs to help with expenses. Ella suffers a paralytic stroke, and, though the neighbors assist in caring for his mother, Richard writes to Granny for help. The world around Richard, which heretofore had seemed somewhat harmless, suddenly appears bleak and hostile to him, and he begins to wonder what will happen if Granny doesn’t come.
Though starving, Richard refuses the food offered by his neighbors, as he is ashamed to feel like an object of charity. When Granny arrives, Richard is glad that someone else will handle his mother’s affairs, but he retains an understanding that he must now “face things alone.” Richard helps the illiterate Granny by writing letters requesting money and support for Ella from her eight other children. Money from these aunts and uncles begins to arrive by mail. Ella, her sons, and Granny return to Granny’s house in Jackson.
Back at Granny’s house, Richard experiences terrible nightmares and fits of sleepwalking, which Granny treats by giving Richard more food and making him take naps in the afternoon. All of Richard’s aunts and uncles come to Granny’s house to help resolve the problem of how to care for Richard and his brother. The aunts and uncles decide to separate the two boys, as it would be too much of a burden for any one of them to care for both boys simultaneously. They decide to send Alan to live with his aunt Maggie in Detroit. To his surprise, Richard’s aunts and uncles give him a choice of where he wants to live. He chooses to live with his uncle Clark in nearby Greenwood, Mississippi, so as to remain near his mother.
Richard feels nervous when Clark assigns him a long list of chores as soon as he arrives, but he feels better when he wakes up the next morning. That morning, Richard is mildly rebuked by Clark’s wife, Aunt Jody, for failing to say good morning to her when he enters the kitchen. Richard then heads off to school, where he successfully fights another boy on the playground in order to gain acceptance from, and the respect of, his peers. That afternoon, Richard finds a ring in the street, removes the stone, and bends the ring’s sharp prongs outward, making it into a weapon. He puts on the ring, expecting to have to fight again, but it proves unnecessary.
Just as Richard feels he is finally settling into his new life, he learns that the son of the previous occupant of Uncle Clark’s house died in the bed that Richard now uses. Richard immediately grows terrified of the room and cannot sleep at all. Clark and Jody refuse to let him sleep on the sofa, and Richard’s insomnia persists, bringing him to the edge of nervous exhaustion. Unable to endure the situation any longer, Richard asks to return to Granny’s house. One day, while waiting for Granny’s response to Clark’s letter, Richard accidentally curses in front of Jody. After Clark punishes him with a beating, Richard begs so persistently to return to Jackson that Clark sends him right away.
Back at Granny’s once again, Richard cannot wait to reach an age when he is old enough to support himself. His mother has much improved in his absence, but she suffers another paralytic stroke when she goes to nearby Clarksdale for an operation. Richard then knows that Ella has effectively left his life, as it seems clear that she will never be well again. Indeed, as Wright observes in retrospect, after her second stroke Ella remained bedridden for most of her remaining ten years. He then reflects that Ella’s pain became a symbol to him for all the suffering and privation of his childhood and adolescent years. He writes that he came to believe, through his mother’s suffering, that the meaning of life comes only from a struggle with meaningless pain.
Richard again faces hunger when he moves back to Jackson. His main meals are flour and lard mush for breakfast, followed by a plate of greens cooked in lard for dinner. He learns to temper his hunger, if only briefly, by drinking so much water that his stomach feels tight and full. Aunt Addie joins Granny in the fight to save Richard’s soul, and tempers again flare.
Richard unwillingly enters the religious school where Addie teaches and finds the students there docile and boring. The tension between Richard and Addie escalates when she wrongly accuses Richard of eating walnuts in class. The guilty student was actually the one sitting directly in front of Richard, but Richard does not want to rat on his classmate. While trying to defend himself, Richard accidentally calls her “Aunt Addie” rather than “Miss Wilson,” making her more furious. Addie beats Richard in front of the class, and he becomes furious that the guilty student has not come forward. Addie tells Richard that she is not yet through with him, but he resolves that she will not beat him again.
At home that evening, Richard tells Addie who the real culprit was, but she then decides to beat him again because he did not tell her this truth earlier in class. When she tries to do so, Richard grows frenzied and fends her off with a knife. He successfully defends himself, but Granny, Grandpa, and Ella all take Addie’s side. They are more convinced than ever that something is seriously wrong with Richard. Wright then recalls that the only time he ever saw Addie laugh at school was when he was injured in a game of pop-the-whip that Addie had suggested the children play.
Religion attracts Richard emotionally, but on an intellectual level he is unable to believe in God. Granny forces Richard to attend certain all-night prayer meetings, but the twelve-year-old Richard’s hormones make him more interested in the church elder’s wife than in the elder’s words.
A religious revival is coming through town, and Richard’s family kindly urges him to attend, deciding that this is their last chance to reform him. Richard knows their true motives, however, and is unmoved. Granny recruits the neighborhood boys to try to convince Richard to go to God, but he can see his grandmother’s workings behind his friends’ words, and is not convinced. Richard is unable to explain to his peers his inability to believe in God. He has faith in the “common realities of life,” not in any concept of cosmic order.
During a sermon one day at church, Richard whispers to Granny that he would believe in God if he saw an angel. Granny hears him incorrectly and thinks that he has said that he has seen an angel. She elatedly informs the church elder and the rest of the congregation. Richard, already mortified at Granny’s misunderstanding, makes things worse by embarrassing her, correcting her error in front of everyone present at the church. Granny is furious.
To appease Granny’s anger, Richard promises to pray every day, but he is unable to do so. The act of prayer even makes him laugh. To kill time during his daily prayer hour, he decides to write a story about an Indian maiden who drowns herself. In his excitement to share the story with someone, Richard reads it aloud to the young woman who lives next door. She seems astonished that anyone would write a story simply out of the desire to write, but Richard takes satisfaction from her puzzled bewilderment.
Wright’s description of his interactions with the boys in Arkansas reveals the pain and futility he and these boys feel as black boys in a racist white society. The boys try to express defiance and seeming self-confidence through frequent anti-white declarations. However, as this defiance stems from the pain of constant oppression by whites, and because white oppression is far too massive for one person to stop alone, that air of confidence is fraught with insecurity. Wright indicates that the boys “frantically concealed how dependent we were upon one another.” Like their parents’ anxious conversations about race relations, the boys’ fights accomplish nothing significant or lasting. Rather, they afford only the temporary emotional release gained by fighting over a boundary that will soon be violated once again. Though we see the boys’ violent interracial fighting as pointless, we realize that the need to feel some sense of control, however fleeting, often expresses itself in irrational ways.
Richard’s conflicts with Addie are intimately related to his problem with God and religion. Addie expects submission and meekness that, from Richard’s perspective, goes beyond what she deserves. When she beats him in the classroom, he is very angry, but he can rationalize it to a degree because he knows that he appears guilty. At home, after Richard tells Addie who had really eaten the walnuts, she still wants to beat him, manufacturing the excuse that he was sinfully lying to her as a justification. But, as Richard’s armed resistance demonstrates, the idea of abstract guilt does not strike a chord with him. Wright says that he has always had a notion of the suffering involved in life, but that it has never been tied to religion: “I simply could not feel weak and lost in a cosmic manner.” He implies that the weakness that the concept of original sin—the idea of mankind’s fundamental sinfulness, an essential doctrine of the Christian church—makes people feel is the only thing that makes them seek God. Thus, Wright’s inability to feel fundamentally flawed and in need of correction makes him unable to submit not only to Addie, but to God as well. Rather, Wright feels lost in the sea change of his own life. The events of these chapters give dramatic testimony to the unpredictability of Richard’s life, making it easy for us to understand Richard’s difficulty in believing in any doctrine of cosmic order.
For Wright, the meaning of life lies in the very act of striving to find the meaning of life. This idea is essential to existentialism, a school of twentieth-century philosophical thought to which Wright ascribed later in his life. Existentialism asserts that many of the most important choices we need to make in life—such as whether to believe in God or whether to believe in love—have no rational or objective basis. Such notions of rationality and objectivity are merely the inventions of humankind. The only thing that humans can ever know is that which they can observe directly. Existentialist thought also holds that we can make life meaningful through individual creativity and through the active acceptance of our own self-created values. In Black Boy, Wright claims that “no education could ever alter” his conclusion that the meaning of life is discernible “only when one [is] struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.” Wright wrote Black Boy during 1943–1944, but came into contact with existentialism late in 1947, when he moved to Paris. After meeting two of its major proponents, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Wright came to embrace existentialism. He did so not because it was fashionable—although, at the time, it was very fashionable indeed—but because it resonated with beliefs he had always held.